Book Review: Little Children by Tom Perrotta

little children

Rating: B/  Adultery, pedophilia, pornography addiction, and the all-around dark side of Suburbia all converge in this darkly funny, bleak book, which nonetheless kind of falls apart in a final act that is both inexplicable and unsatisfying. This is going to be a hard book to review, because I loved the movie, and as a result the differences between the two projects were kind of jarring for me. It’s pretty much the reverse of loving a book and not being able to reconcile with the changes made to the story when you are watch the movie. Anyway, Tom Perrotta’s novel is a bit more tongue-in-cheek than the movie, which was just plain depressing and had a conclusion that people found overly lurid and exploitative (but, funnily enough, which I found less baffling and more satisfying than the book ending.)

Sarah Pierce, the protagonist of Little Children, is a brainy lapsed feminist with bisexual leanings who is trapped in an unhappy marriage to the pornography-addicted Richard, who’s more involved with the erotic adventures of an internet personality, ‘Slutty Kay,’ than his wife or young daughter. Sarah’s daughter, Lucy, is a cute and blameless child, but Sarah doesn’t seem particularly happy to have her in her life; to Sarah, Lucy is a ball and chain preventing her from spending her time the way she’d like to and pursuing more intellectual endeavors. When Sarah meets Todd, the handsome stay-at-home dad all the moms on the playground call the ‘prom king’ and not so subtly fantasize about, sparks fly and the two engage in a feverish affair soon after that neither will forget.

Meanwhile, registered sex offender Ronald James McGorvey, provides the local parents with something to worry about and discuss among themselves, and Todd’s friend Larry makes it his personal operative to drive Ronald out on a rail. One of the biggest changes the movie made was the characterization of Ronald. In the movie Ronald was a pathetic loser struggling with ugly urges, but he really was just an indecent exhibitionist brand of pedophile, and despite his disgusting actions, you couldn’t help, against your own better judgement, feeling a little sorry for him as his endlessly well-intentioned mother May tries to set him up with a woman his own age.

In the book, Ronnie is a total P.O.S., someone you want to meet an untimely end, and not of the quick and painless variety. I like the characterization of  the movie Ronnie a bit better, because it adds a bit of moral ambiguity to his subplot, whereas in the book you ultimately end up thinking he deserves pretty much everything he gets. However, I still feel as bad as ever for Ronald’s mother, May McGorvey, who is continually punished for her unconditional love of a son who is pretty much the Antichrist, and the absurd task of keeping her ‘little boy’ away from local playgrounds and kiddie porn as her aging body rapidly deteriorates.

My favorite part about this book is the writing style. It’s dark humor made me laugh out loud a few times, which you certainly wouldn’t catch me doing when I watched the movie. My least favorite part of the book was, you guessed it, the ending.  I can’t exactly tell you what I didn’t like about the ending without spoiling the book for you, but suffice to say it really didn’t work by any stretch of the  imagination, and was just bizarre to boot.

I thought that overall this book was very well-written and had a memorable cast of characters and interestingly fractured relationships. I can’t help comparing it to the movie, which worked a bit better for me overall, but the novel is a work of art in it’s own right, with plain-spoken, unsentimental, and often darkly humorous prose that crackles on the page. Basically if you liked the movie, I think you’ll like this too, and if you haven’t seen the movie, rent it and check out the book from you’re local library, because they’re both totally worth it.

For people who believe that underneath the veneer of a perfect suburban community is a web of self-delusion, dysfunction and deceit, this book should do their cynical little hearts proud. The murky undertow of this town certainly didn’t begin with the arrival of the sex offender, it only gave it opportunity to poke it’s ugly head out. And how can you expect your child to act like a big kid if you don’t seem capable of being a grown-up yourself? For Sarah and Todd, a late-onset coming-of-age is in order, and for their baffled youngsters,  it can’t come soon enough.

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